Less than four months before November’s general election, which includes Congressional mid-term, state Legislature and gubernatorial races as well as 13 ballot measures, a federal judge will rule if Florida’s four-year early voting ban on public college campuses is constitutional.
U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida Chief Justice Mark Walker on July 16 will consider a preliminary injunction to prevent Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner from enforcing the ban.
If the injunction is sustained, potentially "hundreds of thousands" of students will find it easier to vote on Florida campuses this fall.
The injunction stems from a May 22 lawsuit filed by the League of Women Voters of Florida and six University of Florida and Florida State University students who claim the ban violates students’ First, 14th, and 26th amendment rights.
The suit has been joined by two nationwide organizations dedicated to expanding voter access, particularly among populations likely to vote for progressives, such as students.
Signed on as plaintiffs are Priorities USA Foundation and the Andrew Goodman Foundation, which sponsors the Vote Everywhere campaign on 56 colleges and universities nationwide.
"We’re confident that we will prevail in court when this case goes to full trial, and in the meantime urge the court to stop Secretary Detzner from suppressing the vote any further," Priorities USA Foundation Chairman Guy Cecil said in a statement.
Objections from the University of Florida’s Vote Everywhere contingent initiated the lawsuit when the state’s Division of Elections blocked a request by the city of Gainesville to use UF’s student union as an early voting site in 2014, saying it was not a government-owned community center and therefore, by state law, could not be used.
A November 2017 Gainsville Sun op-ed written by UF Vote Everywhere Team Leader Megan Newsome said the state’s decision created a huge barrier to student voting, claiming unless students have access to a vehicle, voting often means a long walk to the nearest polling site or riding for an hour on multiple buses.
Newsome claims the state’s decision prevented thousands of UF students from voting in 2014 and 2016.
"Students deserve to have their votes counted just like everyone else. That’s why we’re defending the voices of students across Florida, who have had trouble getting to early-voting locations," Newsome wrote.
The irony is at question is a 2013 law designed to expand voter access to the ballot.
According to the lawsuit, "Following the disastrous 2012 general election, in which voters across Florida encountered unconscionably long lines when attempting to vote during the early voting period and on Election Day, the Florida Legislature amended the state’s election laws to expand the availability of early voting."
The Legislature expanded the early voting period from eight days to 14 days and the minimum number of hours each early voting site must be open daily from six to eight hours.
In addition, the Legislature expanded the types of locations that may serve as early voting locations.
Before 2013, county elections supervisors could only offer early voting in main or branch offices and were only permitted to designate a "city hall or permanent public library facility" as early voting sites.
But, the suit claims, the 2013 law gives county elections supervisors power to designate "any fairground, civic center, courthouse, county commission building, stadium, convention center, government-owned senior center, or government-owned community center as an early voting site."
Detzner’s interpretation of the statute is an "unjustifiable burden on the voting rights of hundreds of thousands of eligible Florida voters," the suit asserts. "Those burdens fall particularly and disproportionately on the state's young voters" who will find it "difficult, and in some cases, impossible" to vote in 2018.
The state’s attorneys dismiss students’ claims that they face difficult obstacles in voting early.
"Having to go one mile off campus for college-aged voters who have a history of actually voting in elections cannot impose a constitutionally cognizable burden or serve as the basis for a plausible claim for relief," the state maintains.
When the lawsuit was filed, Gov. Scott’s office said it was nothing more than progressive and liberal organizations, such as Priorities USA, seeking a contrived issue to manipulate
"The political organization and the partisan D.C. lawyers that filed this frivolous lawsuit know that under Gov. Scott's leadership, he has made it easier for Floridians to vote," Scott's office said in the statement. "This political group waited four years to challenge this interpretation. This is obviously an election-year gimmick to distort the facts."
The Scott Administration maintains the suit should be decided in state, not federal, court.
"A state court, interpreting state law, can decide the case on narrow, statutory interpretation grounds and, perhaps, avoid any constitutional issues," the state's brief said.
Scott is also not pleased the suit is before Walker, an Obama appointee, who has ruled against the state in two prior voting rights cases.
In February, Walker ruled Florida's scheme for restoring felons’ voting rights is unconstitutional. In 2016, he struck down a state law that rejected mail ballots if a voter's envelope signature did not match a signature on file.